Sitting hunched over the computer for hours can put too much stress on your back, but do you know that you’re putting pressure on your neck, too?
Neck pain is a common occurrence, especially among the working and elderly population. In 2017, some 65.3 million people were sidelined by neck pain, according to this review. This is not at all surprising, since most of our waking hours are spent on our digital screen-driven workspaces.
While the majority of neck pain cases are not serious, some individuals do experience recurring neck pain. If you’re one of them, allow us to spill the beans on chronic neck pain, its causes, symptoms and the best natural treatments available.
Anatomy of the neck
Located in between the skull base and the clavicle, our neck, or cervical spine, holds an important role in providing support and mobility to our head. Made up of the first seven vertebrae that form our spinal column, the neck likewise carries a complex connection of muscles, ligaments, bones, joints and blood vessels.
If something’s off with any of these tissues — for instance, if it gets inflamed or strained from overexertion — you’ll end up having a painful neck.
How do you define neck pain?
A neck pain can be abrupt, as in the case of an injury, or it may develop over time, as with normal wear and tear due to aging.
Neck discomfort can range from a minor irritation to severe pain that interferes with your daily life and drastically reduces your range of motion, such as turning your head side to side or looking up and down.
What are the symptoms and signs of neck pain?
The pain may be sharp and concentrated in one spot, or dull and spread across a wider region such as the shoulder and arms. In some instances, it is accompanied by headaches, muscle spasms or a tingling and numbing sensation along the arm or hand, such as those caused by a pinched nerve on the neck.
What about neck pain that occurs on the left or right side?
Your neck is asymmetrical, and regardless if your neck pain is felt on the right side or left side, the fact remains that it occurred for various reasons: muscle strains, stress and bad posture, to name a few. Experiencing pain on the right side does not mean you have a more serious problem than having it on the left side.
In most instances, you may feel it only on one side because of an erratic sleeping position, or from incorrect posture that puts a lot of stress on the muscles and tendons on that particular side of your neck.
How do I know if I have chronic neck pain?
Generally speaking, chronic pain is defined as an unpleasant sense of discomfort that lasts beyond the expected healing period. More specifically, it is referred to as pain that lasts from three to six months.
Globally, an estimated 20 percent of the population is affected by chronic pain, and about 20 percent of doctor visits are prompted by chronic pain among patients.
Chronic neck pain: A pain in the neck
Because it can disrupt daily activities that lead to work and school absenteeism, neck pain can take its economic toll in terms of treatment costs, compensation expenses or reduced work and school productivity.
Up to 30 percent of patients with neck pain may develop a chronic symptom, according to a study. Of these, some 14 percent will have neck pain that lasts more than six months.
A review of available literature on neck pain likewise indicated that 5 percent of the adult population are disabled by neck pain.
Possible causes of chronic neck pain
There are various reasons why neck pain happen, among them are abnormalities in the bones or joints, degenerative diseases, muscle strain, trauma or injury, poor posture and a tumor. Your neck is also highly susceptible to a pinched nerve, medically known as cervical radiculopathy.
The following conditions are common triggers of chronic neck pain:
Cervical spondylosis — A catch-all term for spinal degeneration that occurs in the neck.
- Cervical osteoarthritis — This condition wears away our protective cartilage, leading to greater bone friction and a painful inflammation.
- Cervical herniated disk — Tears to the disk’s outer layer causes the jelly-like material from the inner layer to leak, causing inflammation and pain.
- Cervical stenosis — This condition is caused by bone spurs, ligament thickening or disk degeneration, leading to the narrowing of the spinal canal within the neck. It compresses the spinal cord in the process, with chronic neck pain as a result.
- Fibromyalgia — This syndrome is known to cause widespread pain, most especially in the neck, the shoulders, base of the head and upper back as well.
- Traumatic injury — A strong impact from a collision may damage the disks, joints, muscles and ligaments and other essential parts of the neck or its surrounding tissues.
Serious injuries require emergency medical attention, so it’s best to send the patient immediately to the hospital.
Risk factors for chronic neck pain
One or a combination of these factors make you more susceptible to chronic neck pain based on various studies:
- Age — The body undergoes changes, particularly from wear and tear, as we age, resulting in a higher risk of developing degenerative diseases that trigger chronic neck pain.
- Gender — Females are more susceptible to chronic neck pain, likely due to hormonal differences that make women more sensitive to it.
- Obesity — Overweight and obese individuals, especially women, are more at risk of developing chronic lower back and neck as well as shoulder pain, based on this study.
- Work-related stress and other issues — Surprisingly, workplace bullying and heavy workload, among other factors, were cited as possible triggers for chronic neck pain.
- Sleep deprivation — Lack of sleep alters our pain perception, making us more sensitive to discomfort.
- Emotional exhaustion — This study found that emotional tiredness at the end of a workday on a regular basis may increase the risk of chronic neck pain, especially among men.
- Mental health issues — Physical and emotional pain are related, hence, it is not surprising that adolescents who struggle with mental health also experience back and neck pain.
A few lifestyle changes and minor adjustments can help reduce your risk of having chronic neck pains.
What are the best natural treatments for chronic neck pain?
In most cases, neck pain goes away in a few days with the application of non-invasive and simple home remedies. If it is caused by a more serious condition such as a cervical degenerative disease, it can aggravate over time if left untreated.
For mild to moderate pain and discomfort, you may try any or a combination of the following at home:
1. Ice or heat packs — Cold therapy reduces pain and swelling. Apply a neck ice pack up to 48 hours following the onset of neck and shoulder pain. If the discomfort is focused on your shoulder and arm, try this highly recommended shoulder ice pack, as well. If you want an excellent cooling experience using a shoulder compression wrap, you should have this. After two to three days, apply heat to ease tense muscles.
2. Cervical pillow — Use this multi-purpose cooling cervical pillow while lying down or sleeping to support your neck and avoid further discomfort.
3. Cervical collar — Also called a neck brace, a cervical collar may be placed on your neck to ensure you don’t move your neck too much. Managing neck movement and minimizing pressure allows your muscles to rest while healing from the strain.
4. Active rest — Avoid activities that exacerbate your condition, but perform light exercises and stretching.
5. Massage — Perform gentle massages on the neck and shoulder to relax muscles and improve blood circulation.
6. Acupuncture — By harnessing your body’s natural healing abilities, acupuncture may help you control pain with acute and chronic neck pain.
7. Herbal supplements and remedies — The efficacy of herbal remedies is yet to be established, but many people turn to these medicinal herbs to treat their neck pain:
- Devil’s claw — This odd-looking therapeutic herb is found to be effective against inflammation and pain, such as cervical osteoarthritis.
- White willow bark — The white willow is taken as a natural alternative for aspirin. It is also said to effectively fight neck pain and inflammation.
- Capsaicin cream — This compound found in chili peppers can temporarily reduce pain. Individuals suffering from neck pain due to osteoarthritis and muscle pain can apply it repetitively on the affected area.
- Menthol and camphor — As major ingredients of many pain-relieving ointments, menthol and camphor not only act as analgesic but may also improve blood circulation.
- St. John’s wort — Its anti-inflammatory properties make it a popular herbal product for nerve pain relief. Processed into pill, powder and tea forms, it is also said to improve your mood.
8. Yoga — This review found yoga to be a promising supplemental treatment for chronic pain. Apart from its healing properties, performing yoga poses and exercises help strengthen your core, reduce stress, promote relaxation and enhance your posture.
9. Physical therapy — To improve neck strength and flexibility, as well as to reduce neck discomfort, ask a physical therapist to create a treatment plan and an exercise program for you.
10. Manual spinal manipulation — Using their bare hands, a chiropractor can correct your spinal alignment by twisting it. This spine-cracking therapy is said to reduce pain and improve your range of motion.
11. Cognitive behavioral therapy — Widely used to treat depression and other mental health conditions, cognitive behavioral therapy technique is said to be effective in pain management, reducing the impact of pain through cognitive and behavioral modifications.
What are the other treatment options for chronic neck pain?
Your physician may prescribe oral corticosteroids to relieve inflammation, or a steroid injection to reduce swelling and inflammation. Surgery may be recommended for neck and shoulder pain not addressed by these non-surgical treatments.
When to see a doctor
If your neck pain becomes too severe and disabling despite the application of these self-care methods, book an appointment with your doctor.
Also, look out for possible red flags such as high fever, vomiting, light sensitivity or loss of function in the arm and hands. These could be signs of a brain infection or other more serious conditions.
You will find these alternative treatments helpful in treating neck pain as it happens. Choose one or two and try them together to see which works best to ease your chronic neck pain and other related symptoms.
If non-surgical treatments fail to resolve your neck pain, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a medical professional.
How about you? Do you find these remedies effective? Share your thoughts with us here.